Obituary: Professor Tom Bottomore
Monday 14 December 1992
TOM BOTTOMORE was Britain's best-known and most highly regarded sociologist. He had a remarkable international reputation; wherever one went one encountered his own students and also people who had found his books the most accessible and enlightening entry into the subject. Those who knew him loved him and his death will be a great personal blow to many people. He was revered in the Third World and especially in India. His textbook Sociology (1962) was first written for Indian students and went through successive editions over several decades. He was widely respected for his untiring international work, especially for his presidency of the International Sociological Association.
Bottomore was trained at the LSE and became a lecturer there, until he left to become Professor at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, in 1965. In 1968 he returned to Sussex University and remained there until he 'retired' in 1985. The conference to mark his retirement showed how great had been his influence, drawing a galaxy of Britain's best-known scholars. Bottomore, however, kept going as active as ever until the day of his death. Among his many projects was a magisterial dictionary of 20th-century social thought (edited with William Outhwaite) that will be published shortly.
Bottomore was a lifelong Marxist. His Marxism was open, undogmatic and humane, and his work was highly regarded by non-Marxists. His selection of the writings of Karl Marx (edited with Maximilien Rubel) was published in 1956 and was for many thousands their first encounter with the real Marx. It remains the best short collection to this day. His books Elites and Society (1964) and Classes in Modern Society (1965) showed that sociology did not have to be polysyllabic and inaccessible. Later on he returned to his interests in economic sociology and produced a number of remarkable books, including his commentary on TH Marshall's Citzenship, published in 1992.
Bottomore was a great force for calm and sanity in the overcharged world of sociology after the student revolts of 1968 and the intense theoretical debates and dogmatic conflicts of the 1970s. He championed the democratic and civilised Marxism of the Austrians, whose country he loved. He was a great teacher, best in small groups and with graduate students. Often he would sit quietly, listening to strident opinions and then would inject sense and balance with a few quiet and well- chosen words.
His greatest sorrow was the death of his beloved second wife, Mary, which denied him the companionship in his retirement that he had enjoyed during their life together. He responded to this bitter blow with characteristic dignity and courage. He continued to advocate peace, social justice, the cause of the world's poor and excluded, but also democracy and sanity. He was never a believer in the violent revolutionary extremism of the Left, equally he was sure that the divisive and rigid right-wing economic liberalism that was so fashionable in the 1980s would pass away and that saner and kinder ideas would come to prevail.
If there is a word to sum up Tom Bottomore's life it would be constancy. He pursued his course untroubled by fashion and with indifference to pretension.
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